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Rishi Sunak Has Embraced Climate Breakdown

Rishi Sunak's reckless climate surrender is a cynical attempt to ignite a culture war — and he's willing to let our planet burn in order to get there.

Rishi Sunak announced he will weaken the UK’s net zero policies. (Photo by Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

This week, Rishi Sunak made headlines by renouncing his party’s previous commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Much like Sunak’s previous pledges, the announcement doesn’t amount to much of substance. As many environmentalist groups have already pointed out, the government’s net zero target was flawed from the start — especially considering the UK has successfully outsourced most of its emissions to the global South.

And while the government has often talked a big game when it comes to the climate, it has consistently favoured the interests of fossil fuel lobbyists over those of people and planet — whether by allowing fracking, subsidising oil companies, or preventing the rollout of renewable technologies like onshore wind.

Rather than a substantial change in policy direction, Sunak’s announcement signals a significant change in rhetoric. The Conservative Party, which has historically benefitted from an undeserved ‘green’ image largely thanks to its historical association with English landowners, is abandoning any pretence of committing to decarbonisation.

On the face of it, this might seem like something of an own goal. The majority of voters are deeply concerned about the impact of climate breakdown, consistently ranking it as one of the most significant threats to face the country.

The problem is that most people feel utterly powerless to do anything about it. And responding to this sense of powerlessness has become big business.

Almost every new product brought to market today is advertised as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’. The majority of these claims are dubious at best and overt lies at worst, but there is very little individual consumers can do to hold brands to account. Any brand can adopt green packaging, put a leaf on its logo and claim that its products are ‘sustainable’ without oversight or accountability.

But the problem runs even deeper than brands’ increasingly desperate attempts at greenwashing. Even those corporations that claim to ‘offset’ their carbon emissions, or claim to be committed to environmentally sustainable production throughout their supply chains, often fail to meet the most basic ecological standards.

The problem, as Laurie Parsons highlights in his excellent book Green Colonialism, is that even those corporations that genuinely want to reduce their impact on the environment are unable to do so due to the overwhelming complexity and opacity of their supply chains.

Parsons personally journeys along many of these supply chains, only to discover that brands marketing themselves as ‘green’ and ‘ethical are — sometimes unknowingly — procuring inputs from corporations that mistreat their workers and have a devastating impact on the climate.

ESG scores — standards developed by regulators to assess the environmental, social and governance performance of publicly listed firms — suffer from the same problems. Not only is it almost impossible to fully audit a company’s supply chain to check whether it is adhering to all of these standards, but ESG scoring also contains massive loopholes, such as the fact that banks aren’t penalised for lending to fossil fuel companies.

There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. The only way to tackle climate breakdown is through fundamentally rewiring global production.

Most people are, on some level, aware of this problem, which makes them increasingly cynical about attempts by corporations and regulators to tackle climate breakdown without threatening the status quo.

Fossil fuel lobbyists have successfully identified this cynicism and skilfully translated it into an overt resentment of the so-called ‘green agenda’.

At one level, fossil fuel lobbyists have launched a successful campaign to convince people that governments want to fight climate breakdown by taxing them into poverty. Lobbyists for ExxonMobil were caught on tape telling an undercover reporter that the firm had thrown its weight behind carbon taxes on the basis that they would never be introduced, and would undermine support for pro-climate policies.

But at an even deeper level, the anti-green agenda has become interwoven with a number of other conspiracy theories peddled by the far right. 

According to this broad, eclectic and largely incoherent school of thought, a cast of characters including Bill Gates, George Soros and the World Economic Forum are working together to keep cars off the roads, ban meat, and lock people in their homes.

Naturally, it is impossible to disabuse people of these beliefs once they have become embedded. Arguing with someone who has bought the idea of the ‘green agenda’ is largely pointless. This is, of course, a massive boon to Big Oil.

When you ask these people what we are supposed to do about climate breakdown instead, they tend to shrug and cast doubt on the science. But there is a growing movement on the extreme right that advocates nothing short of planetary apartheid. This fascist-adjacent movement could be characterised as a kind of death cult.

To politicians like Marine Le Pen, climate change is real. But there can be no escaping its consequences. Instead, ‘the West’ must come together to protect itself as best it can — and crucially prevent climate migrants from crossing its borders, consigning millions of people to death in the process.

Conspiracism and nihilism are what happens when people realise the system is broken but feel utterly helpless to do anything about it. Rishi Sunak is playing up to this audience, castigating the ‘woke elites’ oppressing ordinary people, and encouraging us all to sign up to the idea of fortress Britain to protect our own corner of a dying planet.

Most people know that capitalism is a grossly unfair system designed by and for elites who disguise their own blatant and often brutal exercise of power behind talk of ‘free markets’. But unless we are able to mobilise people behind a collective vision of a different world, all this recognition leads to is despair.

In this struggle, individualism is our greatest enemy. Neoliberalism was designed to destroy the organised working class and create a class of powerless, atomised consumers in its place. The neoliberal subject is built to care only about their own interests.

We have to accept that people feel powerless because, as individuals, they are powerless. But when we work together — whether in national politics or simply at the level of our workplace or community — we are very powerful indeed.